Sunday, 7 June 2009

In many things in science it is more important to know what you can know, than to come up with a conclusion prematurely.

One common heuristic in operations research (and science generally) is the signal to noise ratio. Data is inherently noisy. And everyone knows that the noise can obscure the signal.

What isn't widely known, is that this isn't the whole picture. In order to detect signals in the midst of lots of noise, you have to be so sensitive to patterns that you'll start to detect patterns that aren't there. In other words: to avoid false negatives (not finding something that is there), you'll be forced to used techniques that can give false positives (finding things that aren't there).

Strikes me that something of the same occurs in several scientific subdisciplines of theology. In the search for the historical Jesus, for example, we have to be so tuned to detecting theological bias in the scant records we have, that it is easy to spot features that aren't there. In the quest to solve the synoptic problem, similarly, we find features that are probably not there, which can lead to people declaring 'solutions' without understanding how likely they are to be true.

I'm not a scholar, but I'm trying to read as much on the synoptic problem as possible. So far I've not read anything that tries to seriously understand how much we can possibly know from the source text. There are various references to "of course, we'll never really know" - but nobody trying to say how much we could know.

Seems to me that is a crucial question.


  1. Anonymous said...
    You'll find quite a bit about the historical 1st century Pharisee Ribi that is known by diverse and scattered scholars but isn't widely disseminated at:

    (Particularly, note the pages in the History Museum.)
    Ian said...
    I'm not sure I understand what you mean, or whether this is just link-bating?

    Can you explain what that has to do with the post you commented on?

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